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life Making Things

There Is Not Just One Way

Last week, I was watching the online graduation ceremony of one of the Offspring. The university did a lovely job, complete with cheesy “photo op” with the university president (he paused for a minute, smiling at the camera, with an empty space beside him so the graduates could stand in front of the screen and take a selfie).

One of the things that stuck with me was the speech of one of the valedictorians. He talked about how weird it was to address his talk to a camera rather than an auditorium of smiling faces; how different from what he had expected. He had expected one thing, but had to do it quite differently. And then he issued a challenge:

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

One way of doing things. The only way. The right way. And if we can’t do it this way, we might as well not do it at all. Isn’t that’s the way it works?

I learned how to knit when I was in Grade 3, or maybe 4, in needlework class in school. Well, actually, I think I already knew some of it before we got to it in class; my mother had shown me. But that was all right, because she knew the right way to do it, so I didn’t have to unlearn anything.

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There is, of course, only one way to knit. You feed the yarn through the fingers of your left hand, hold the index finger up with the yarn looped around it, grasp the left knitting needle with the remaining fingers, take the other needle in your right hand, insert it into the stitch, and scoop the yarn through. That is the way to knit, the right way. Everybody does it that way – my mother, my grandmother, my teacher, all my friends… That’s how I learned to do it. That’s how knitting works.

And then I came to Canada.

I still remember the first time I saw a Canadian knitting. At least she said it was knitting, and she had knitting needles and yarn. But what she was doing seemed really weird. Awkward. She was somehow trailing the yarn from her right hand, poking the needle into the stitch, then picking up that trailing yarn, looping it around the needle, and pulling it through. With every stitch she did that loop-around thing. So odd, so slow. She’d obviously never been taught how to knit properly, poor thing…

But you know what?

That very weird and awkward style of holding yarn in your right hand and looping it around the needle with every stitch – which, incidentally, is called “English knitting” or “throwing” – is not only a perfectly legal method of knitting, but it produces a piece of knitwear that is indistinguishable from one done the “right” way.¬†Honest to goodness! Take any handmade sweater, toque, mitten, sock, or scarf, and I defy you to tell just by looking at the stitches whether the knitter held the yarn in her right hand or left hand, whether she was “throwing” her stitches or “picking” them in “continental style”.

Furthermore, English-style knitters are just as capable of producing vast quantities of knitwear with just as many variants in patterns and colours and fancy stitches as us continental-style knitters. True, continental knitting seems to be faster, on average, and, once you learn it, run more automatically. But really, what it comes down to is how you learned to do it, and what style you prefer. Left hand knitting or right hand, it’s your choice.

But wait! There’s more! Yes, there’s English (or American or French) knitting, and Continental (or German) knitting. But then there’s Western style (needle inserted in the front of the stitch) and Eastern style (needle inserted in the back)! Needle held under the hand (standard American) or above the hand (British English or Parlour style)! Portuguese! Norwegian! Russian! Shetland! Combination style! Picking, flicking, throwing! Looping your working yarn through your fingers; wrapping it once, twice, three times; just letting it hang loose!

I had no idea. I was taught how to knit one way, and a very good way it is, too. I can make sweaters and socks and mittens and even little hats to put on boiled eggs to keep them warm*. But, contrary to what I used to think, it is, by no stretch of the imagination, the only way.

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

Life is better when you like more things – and life is better when you can think of more than one way to do things.

I recently taught myself to knit and purl the “awkward” English way. I still prefer continental style – I’m literally twice as fast at it; I timed it – but now, when my shoulder starts to ache from knitting with the yarn in my left hand or I get bored, I can just switch to the right and fall into another rhythm for a little while. The slower pace and slight awkwardness that still remains makes the process that much more meditative, and at the end, I can’t tell which parts I knit continental and which parts English.

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

The students to whom this valedictorian’s speech was addressed via a Youtube livestream are just as graduated now as they would have been if they had listened to it in a big auditorium, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow graduants. The times required that the graduation was held differently – with the yarn in the right hand, as it were. But it’s just as valid this way.

Life, the Universe, Graduations and Knitting. There is not just one way of doing things.

img_20200622_141949754 *This is an egg hat. In case you were wondering.

Categories
life

Magistra Artium, or: I’ve Mastered the Arts

3607So this past Thursday, I finally got to walk across the stage of my university in a hood and gown to have my hand shaken by my prof, and I now get to call myself an MA.

Actually, technically I’ve been able to call myself that ever since last September, when I got the parchment – that folder they handed me on stage was just a prop; it had a piece of paper inside that said, in effect, “Congratulations; this is a piece of paper which we would like you to give back to us afterwards.”

But for some reason, having done the hood and gown and pomp and ceremony makes a difference. Getting the parchment in the mail was nice, but there wasn’t much to it – I didn’t particularly feel any more graduated that day than the day before. But attending convocation, striding into the auditorium to the rousing heartbeat of the First Nations drum, sitting on the stage under the glare of the spotlights and watching graduate after graduate going across the stage, then taking my own turn and looking into the sea of darkness that was the audience, knowing my family was out there somewhere (and though I didn’t know it, some were even watching the livestream from more than a 1000 km away); receiving that black folder, shaking the hands of several official people in fancy chairs of whose identity I was rather clueless (I believe one was the university president), and then walking in the procession back out of the auditorium, through the double line of our professors in their gowns cheering and applauding our achievement – I really did feel different then. I still do.

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The prof and I big on the screen on the right, and small and blurry on the left on the stage

No, being a Master of Arts doesn’t mean I’m any different than I was last Wednesday, or last August, for that matter. But all the lovely ritual brought it home to me that I really did finish that degree, that it is a big deal to have put in all those years of work – seventeen, to be precise, for the equivalent of five years’ full-time study, during which I also birthed, raised, homeschooled and graduated several of my children.

I don’t mean to brag – although, actually, yes, I do mean to brag. I think we don’t brag nearly enough about the right kinds of things, sometimes. I know I’m very prone to getting down on myself, to not acknowledging to myself what I have, in fact, accomplished. And what that does is raise the bar for everyone else. If all we’re doing is looking at our failures, it’s very easy to get the impression that nothing we have done matters, that success is an elusive thing. But it’s not. It’s totally possible.

And that was the key phrase in the hugely inspiring speech my awesome friend Desi (whom I finally got to meet face-to-face after three years of online friendship) gave to all of us graduates: There is no “impossible”.

That’s why I dare to brag about this, to show off my hood and gown: to let you know that it can be done. I got my whole degree by distance education – last Thursday was the first time I ever set foot in my university and met some of my professors and classmates face-to-face. It was exhilarating. One of the students who was graduating that day was a frail white-haired woman who needed a supporting arm to lean on to make it across the stage. She had begun her studies in 1979 – that’s right, nineteen-hundred-seventy-nine – and last Thursday, she got her Bachelor of Arts degree. As she turned to be helped back to her seat, a man’s voice in the auditorium yelled out, “WAY TO GO, MOM!!”

Yes, I cried. In fact, I’m doing it again as I write this. There is no “impossible”.

Life, the Universe, and at long last, a Master of Arts. It can be done.

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They don’t call it a hood for nothing

PS: In case you’re wondering, my uni is Athabasca University, the Canadian Open University (which isn’t just for Canadians, either). I’m not sure what the equivalent US institution is (I’ve heard something about the University of Phoenix?), but I’m sure there is one; and in Germany, there is the FernUniversit√§t Hagen. Where there’s a will there’s a university. Oh, and here you can click through to my final Master’s project (the link goes to quill and qwerty, the blog that I kept for documenting my research).